Finally Desdemona! – Othello

How would a Shakespearean audience have responded to Desdemona?

In Act I, Scene III, we finally meet Desdemona. Through her dialogue it is evident that she has a duality of both submissive attitude and assertiveness. She was owned by her father up until she got married to Othello. This is the argument she uses when she pleads “I am hitherto your daughter. But here’s my husband.” The word ‘hitherto’ implies her new identity as a wife supersedes the previous one as a daughter. As she married Othello behind Brabantio’s back, we see her as an assertive figure who marries for love, but as a Shakespearean audience would have sympathised with Brabantio’s anger because a marriage usually benefit the family in either the way of money or status, but here he has scandal. Although Desdemona does use some imperatives against the male figures in the play, “let me find a charter in your voice”, a woman of the time was expected to be obedient and “submit [them]selves unto [their] husbands” as the Book of Common Prayer told them. As an audience would have read this they would perhaps be troubled at the levelness that Othello and Desdemona share the equality in their relationship. A modern audience would respect this dynamic more, yet wouldn’t agree with the idea that she is still passed over to Othello, who tells her to “come” as well as speaking for her.

Ella

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Historic Setting Use – Othello

How and why has Shakespeare used the historic setting of Venice and Cyprus in 1570-1?

Shakespeare had used the dramatic technique of a split geography with the first act taking place in Venice and the rest, in Cyprus. Othello explores what it means to live in a dynamic city like Venice, during times of high power and wealth as an independent republic. Stereotypes of hedonism fascinated the English, with Venice’s courtesans demonstrating the cities more relaxed view of sexual and promiscuous behaviour – something that Iago has anxieties about in Scene 1 when he tells Brabantio “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs”. In contrast, Cyprus – an ideal area for economic success – yet an area of tension. Venice had owned Cyprus and had wanted to maintain it but the Ottoman Empire was looking to expand their territory. With Othello as leader of the Venetian mercenary army, he would have had authority but not status or respect as the army was not official. This is made clear when Cassio, a scholar “that never set a squadron in the field” could be promoted over Iago. It would create opportunities to move the plot along and introduce themes of jealousy which concludes the play to a tragedy.

Ella

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‘The Moor’ AO3 – Othello

The Moor AO3

  • Arab, Berber people of North Africa who inhabited Northern Spain
  • ‘Barbary’ – famous horse from the Arab world but when Iago says “your daughter covered with a Barbary horse” he is also playing the the term ‘barbarian’ meaning savagery
  • Genetic – moor, black African referred to as ‘blackamoor’
    Queen Elizabeth wanted to rid England of Spanish ‘negors’ and ‘blackamoors’ in 1601
  • Othello’s race sets him apart
    – he is a high noble, in charge of the Venetian army
    – racial tensions/sexual tensions
    – intermarriage anxieties
  • Moors were often the villains in literature of the time – early 17th century

Act I Scene II

“Let him do his spite;
My services, which I have done the signiory,
Shall out-tongue his complaints”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
Let him do his worst,
What I have done has been approved by the governing body

Who will get the better of him
(ANALYSIS)
Othello is noble and honest – opposite to Iago

“I shall promulgate”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
I shall make publicly know

(ANALYSIS)
More evidence that he is honest

“My parts, my title and my perfect soul
Shall manifest me rightly”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
My qualities, my legal right and flawless soul
Shall reveal me correctly as I am
(ANALYSIS)
He is not hiding anything, appearance vs. reality

“Holla, stand there!”
“Keep up your bright swords”
“Hold up your hands”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
Stop! Don’t move!

(ANALYSIS)
His use of imperatives shows his high status

“Good signor, you shall move command with years
Than with your weapons”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
We don’t need to fight. Use your aged wisdom not violence.

(ANALYSIS)
He appears moral and peaceful, a type of pacifist (but not in war)

“Were it my cue to fight, I should have known it
Without a prompter”
(MODERN TRANSLATION)
If it was my turn to fight, I would know it without having to be provoked

(ANALYSIS)
He is sharp, clear – worthy of his role, nobility

Ella

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Act 1 Scene III – Othello

A key theme in the novel is stories and tales. This helps with characterisation too.

How does Othello and Brabantio say Desdemona fell in love?

Brabantio:

  • “She is abused, stolen from me”
  • “corrupted by spells and medicines”
  • “witchcraft”
  • “most imperfect/That will confess perfection so could err/Against all rules of nature”
  • “praises of cunning hell” – adjectives
  • “same mixtures powerful o’er the blood” – blood is linked to sexual passion
  • “some dram conjured to this effect/He wrought upon her”
  • She is “never bold” according to Brabantio – He puts no blame on Desdemona and says their relationship goes against nature

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Key Terms – Othello

Iambic Pentameter
Blank Verse
Caesura
Rhyme
Hyper syllabic lines
Alliteration
Consonance
Assonance
Prose
Shared line
Soliloquy
Antithesis
Paradox
Literary allusion

It is an extensive list but if you are unsure of any of the meanings you should really try and learn the definitions. This way you will be to refer to them in essays – it may also help to annotate in your text whenever you see them! Shakespeare uses them for a reason!

Ella

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